Gorakhpur, Phulpur & Araria: Lessons From 2009 for Modi & Rahul

What can Rahul Gandhi & PM Modi learn from 2009 for 2019? Here are a few simple lessons for the two challengers.

3 min read

Statistics can often be stranger than fiction. Here’s a political quiz that I am sure most of you will flunk.

Who can claim to be India’s most successful prime minister? You have three chances to give the correct answer. So here goes:  
  • Answer 1: Pandit Nehru? No, although he got re-elected more than once, he did not appreciably increase his (already awesome) mandate over his respective previous tenures.
  • Answer 2: Indira Gandhi? No, she got re-elected after she cut short her tenure in 1971, but added only 36 percent (from 259 in 1967 to 352 seats) to her previous mandate.
  • Answer 3: Atal Bihari Vajpayee? No, he got re-elected in 1999, but the BJP’s numbers in Parliament hardly budged.

Three chances up, guys, you failed to give the right answer. It’s now Computerji’s turn.

And the sahi jawab (correct answer), hold your breath, is Dr Manmohan Singh! He got re-elected in 2009 by increasing his previous mandate of 2004 by a gravity-defying 45 percent (from 141 to 206 seats).

I told you, statistics can be stranger than fiction.

You know what, while the polls of 1996, 1998 and 1999 have been analysed and modelled to death by the pundits, the discontinuities thrown up by the 2009 polls were astonishing:

  1. Congress swept urban areas (7 out of 7 in Delhi and 6 out 6 in Mumbai!)
  2. With 21 seats, Congress was the second-largest party in Uttar Pradesh – yes, UP, of all the states – ahead of BSP and more than double of BJP’s tally (go figure!)
  3. Both the contending alliances, UPA and BJP, had declared prime ministerial candidates, viz Singh and Advani, making it the first “presidential” contest in independent India
  4. The communists collapsed from 59 seats to 24, punished by the electorate for their political betrayal (more on that in a jiffy) and pre-Cold War era shibboleths
The two most quoted reasons for Congress’ re-election in 2009 are the three continuous years of 9 percent+ GDP growth and the farm loan waiver just before voting.

I concede that these were primary causes of Congress’ victory. But very short shrift is given to what, in my opinion, was the elemental reason, ie, that people simply loved Singh’s act of political defiance over the Indo-US nuclear deal.

They saw in him a status quo defying politician who could herald change on a massive scale for an electorate tired of cliché’ spewing leaders. Singh was Nuclear King!

Let’s go back to July 2008: Unfortunately for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, his Left coalition partners saw red over the Indo-US nuclear agreement, and withdrew support in Parliament, pushing the government into minority.

Singh’s own Congress baulked. Opposing spin masters tried to paint Singh as an “American lackey” who was also “anti-Muslim.” But he stood firm.

He had pulled off a diplomatic coup which enhanced India’s soft and hard power across the globe. He sought a vote of confidence in Parliament for his minority government.

Some deft political management saw the Congress get new allies on board, including Samajwadi Party.

Three young Muslim MPs from across the aisle – MIM’s Owaisi, PDP’s Mehbooba Mufti and NC’s Omar Abdullah – supported the government, effectively neutralising the “anti-Muslim” thrust. 

When the vote was counted late at night on 22 July 2008, Singh had won 275-256. His beaming face and exultant V wave became Singh’s political signature for the 2009 polls; across the country, he was feted as “Singh is King” (the title of a blockbuster Hindi film).

Alas, the Congress misread its mandate and harked back to the stasis of garibi hatao (poverty) politics, handing a neat walk-over to Narendra Modi in 2014, who instinctively understood the political message of 2009 better than the victors themselves.

So now, as Prime Minister Modi and Opposition challenger Rahul Gandhi get ready to square off in 2019, they must internalise what the electorate has been screaming in their ears across the general elections of 2009 and 2014, state elections of Tripura and northeast a fortnight back, and the bypolls of Alwar, Ajmer, Madhya Pradesh, Gorakhpur, Phulpur, and Araria: 

We will vote you in, provided you can deliver real and discontinuous change to us. We were promised this in 2009, and again in 2014. But we were let down by both Manmohan Singh and Narendra Modi. So for 2019, please go to your drawing boards and figure it out!

(The Quint is available on Telegram. For handpicked stories every day, subscribe to us on Telegram)

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